By Felix Quigley
July 14, 2008
It is vital to understand clearly how little time Israel has left. We publish what Peter D. Zimmerman, and expert wrote in International Triumph Herald
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The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said last month that there was no danger that we would wake up one morning to find Iran the next nuclear power. He said that Iran would first have to leave the Nonproliferation Treaty, evict the IAEA’s inspectors, “and then it would need at least … six months to one year.” That puts an Iranian nuclear capability well into the future, next year.
Mohammed ElBaradei’s comments came after Israel conducted a military exercise in which its warplanes flew the equivalent of a one-way mission to Iran, an effort possibly intended to remind Iranian hard-liners that Israel has the capability to strike at their “peaceful” uranium enrichment facilities.
Iran is testing an improved third generation of indigenously co-developed enrichment centrifuges, the IR-3 series, demonstrating its technical mastery of the technology. It has 320 tons of uranium hexafluoride gas to feed its centrifuges, enough for almost 100 bombs, but not for even a fraction of one reactor refueling operation.
The IAEA has also recently reported that it has questions that Iran refuses to answer:
Why is Iran using high explosives to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal? The only known use for such tests is to perfect a lightweight nuclear bomb.
Why is Iran developing the kinds of detonators needed in an atomic weapon?
Why is Iran designing, or redesigning, a ballistic missile warhead so that it can contain a nuclear weapon?
Iran announced months ago that it is installing 6,000 centrifuges in its uranium enrichment plant, in addition to the 3,000 in operation. These activities increase Iran’s near-term ability to make nuclear weapons, especially since the new ones have twice the capacity of the originals. The production of plutonium or highly enriched uranium is the major industrial challenge facing Iran’s effort to build nuclear weapons. Uranium enrichment was a problem never quite mastered by the Iraqis, but Iran is well on the way.
Incentives – even the sweetened package recently offered to Iran by the world’s six major powers – have not been enough to persuade Iran to cease or suspend enrichment.
The sanctions previously in force clearly caused far too little pain in the Islamic Republic. The new European initiative to freeze the assets of Bank Melli, the largest Iranian bank, applies significant new pressure on Iran, but Iran might have smelled something coming: Just before the freeze was announced, it moved $75 billion in assets out of reach of European authorities.
The size of its centrifuge program increases suspicion that Iran is not interested in producing enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power plants. The program is too small – even with the planned 50,000 improved centrifuges – to provide fuel for a nuclear power program of any consequence. The centrifuges could barely keep up with the demands of the power reactors Iran is building with Russian help.
But the advanced centrifuges will enable the Iranians to build about twice as many nuclear weapons a year with the current infrastructure than they otherwise could have done. If they add 6,000 machines to today’s 3,000, the bomb-building potential is more than doubled again, but the peaceful utility of the plant is zero.
The danger from the Iranian nuclear program could extend further. If Iran begins enriching uranium to weapons grade on an assembly-line basis, it could transfer this material to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which might fabricate low-technology nuclear explosives. These would probably have yields nearly as high as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
The incremental cost to Iran for such generosity is $2 million to $5 million per bomb – not very high. This is not to say that Iran would support nuclear terrorists, only that it could at an affordable price.
It is time to apply sanctions to persuade Iran to stop uranium enrichment, and to provide some modest low-calorie sweetener to make the deal palatable. Iran’s right to nuclear fuel cycle technology ended when it began violating its safeguards agreement almost 20 years ago.
And it is apparent that the real purpose of Iranian enrichment is to provide fuel for weapons, not reactors.
Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, is emeritus professor of science and security at King’s College London and the former chief scientist of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.